Somerville Drive-In on Route 22 in Branchburg
by Bruce Doorly
|Occasionally this author will test a potential topic to make sure that there is enough interest or sentiment to warrant
an article. When I floated the idea online of writing an article about the drive-In movie theatre that was once on Route 22 in Branchburg
I was surprised at the enthusiasm in the responses.
The theatre was called the “Somerville Drive-In” – it was open from 1954-1988.
|General History of the Drive-In Movie Theatre
The first drive-in movie theater in the U.S. opened in 1933 in Pennsauken Township, New Jersey. It was Richard Hollingshead, a sales manager for his father’s auto parts company, who thought it would be fun to be able to watch a movie from the comfort of one’s own car.
He first tested the concept in his yard by using a projector with a screen made of sheets tied to trees in his yard. On June 6th 1933, his theater opened. His advertising line was “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are”. The charge in that initial year was 25 cents per car, plus 25 cents for each person.
|The sound system then was powerful speakers near the movie screen. This required the cars windows to be left opened.
It also created a sound delay for the cars parked in the rear of the lot.
The business type was then known as a “Park-In Theatre” – the term “Drive-In” was not established until years later.
|The drive-in concept at first spread very slowly throughout the country.
By the start of World War II in 1941 there were 15 drive-in theaters in the U.S..
It would be after the war in the early 1950s when drive-ins began appearing throughout the U.S..
By this time the sound issue had been resolved as each car was given an individual speaker that mounted inside the window.
|The peak year for the drive-in was 1958 when there were 4000 drive-in theatres across the country.
One in four movie theatres was a drive-in. The drive-in theatres usually showed the less popular movies as the first rate movies were sent to the indoor theatres by the Hollywood executives who controlled the movie distribution.
|The videos at intermission
promoted the snack bar
|It was always novel to watch a movie from your car. But there were several other advantages to the drive-in.
One is that it had more space than the traditional movie seat. People could talk among themselves without disturbing the other movie goers.
Usually it was a double feature, so it was a longer night out.
Mom and dad could go to the movies without having to pay a babysitter. Children could wear their pajamas, watch the initial cartoons and some (or all) of the main movie before falling asleep in the back seat.
|For teenagers it offered a place to drink, as alcohol could usually be snuck in. But perhaps the biggest advantage
for young couples was the privacy that the car offered. Drive-ins were known as “passion pits” with many parents wary of their daughter
being taken to the drive-in.
The advertising for drive-ins always mentioned “family” entertainment, but everyone knew the drive-in offered other unmentioned advantages.
All the fun of a drive-in movie first came to this area in 1954 when “The Somerville Drive-In” located on the east bound side of
Route 22 in Branchburg opened.
On August 11th “Three Coins in the Fountain” plus “Charge of the Lancers” was shown. Ads for the movies boasted of the high-tech aspects of “Color by Deluxe” and the “High Fidelity Stereophonic Sound”. The owners offered free hotdogs and soda to every patron that first night.
|The theater, like many other drive-ins, had a playground for children just under the screen.
Kids could play before the movie and at intermission. For an added attraction there was a miniature train that
kids could ride on that ran around the eastern side of the property. (Many recall in later years that this train always seemed to be broken.)
This drive-in was very popular. Attendance was good for decades.
Even if one was not at the theatre it was still fun for kids to look out the window for a peek at the screen as their car road by the drive-in.
|Many who responded to this author’s request for memories told me that they remember what the first movie they saw at the drive-in was.
Many others recall sneaking into the movies. Hiding a person or two in the trunk when entering was common.
But there was even a second way of sneaking in. One guy remembers his friend’s father would drop off a couple kids on a back road. The kids then walked quite a bit through a corn field onto the theatre property to meet up with dad and a kid or two that actually paid in the station wagon.
|The Entrance to the Drive-In
|As for the drinking, another guy remembers that he and his friends once came to the drive-in with a keg of beer in the back seat. The attendant at the entrance looked at them like they were crazy. The teenagers explained that last week they were refused admittance because they had “bottles” of beer. So tonight, they brought a “keg” instead. The attendant let them in.
The snack bar at the “Somerville Drive-In” surprisingly is remembered by many for two things - the shrimp rolls – and the fact that it was reasonably priced. A different era indeed !
|The Projection Booth
|The drive-in was a firm part of American Pop Culture of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. It is missed. Some of the best quotes that this author received are below.
John Chaki said “For many of us the Route 22 drive-in is a permanent place in our memories. There is no doubt it was stereotypical and an exact replica in the films ‘American Graffiti’ and ‘Grease’. “
Ed Danberry gave an honest account of his memories as he said “The highlight of going to the drive-in was getting a shrimp roll. Well, that was actually second to making out.”
|By the 1980s the era of the drive-in was over and The Somerville Drive In would close in 1988.
Today on the property where the drive-in was once located is the Golf Range. Sadly, no trace whatsoever of the drive-in remains there today. However, the new owner of the golf range is toying with the idea of an occasional showing of an outdoor movie at his location. So just maybe sometime this summer a glimpse of the bygone days of the drive-in will be found there.
For those that want to go to a regular drive-in movie, there is still one open in New Jersey. It is in Vineland.
|The Golf Range is there today.